Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Creative Play, or The New-Old School

Recently, I was asked by a professor at BYU to run a gaming session for some of his students. The class is on the theory of Games and Play, and as their homework for next class they need to play a tabletop RPG. I agreed and, not wanting to overwhelm the (most likely) newbie students with a lot of rules, sent them a link to the Swords and Wizardry SRD and sat down to read one of their published modules in preparation.

As I've gone over in some previous posts, I love old-school gaming. I love hiring henchmen, I love finding creative ways to beat or escape from unstoppable monsters, I love 10-ft poles, and I love having to fast-talk the guard, find the secret door, and disarm the trap all without a roll of the dice.

The thing is, I also love modern gaming; I love calculating builds, I love difficult tactical combats, I love investing in the story of a character, and I love using a host of powers to turn the tide of a critical fight.

As I read Bill Webb's introduction to the module and read his discussion of how he runs his games at home, I realized something: Spheres of Power is a personal attempt to marry the two.

Old-School gaming is not just about being rules-light; it's about rewarding player creativity. Players jam doors with metal spikes, use 10-foot poles to prod the dungeon floor, and use complicated rope tricks to get from point A to point B across any obstacle. Heck, some creative uses of abilities became so standard they were even codified in later editions (In the 2nd Edition Handbook, the Light spell gave directions for how to use the spell to light up someone's eyes to blind them, as this creative use of the spell become so popular it was practically standard use.)

Being a Pathfinder supplement first, Spheres of Power codifies its rules in a very modern-game sort of way, detailing everything it can for complicated builds and tactical combats, but as I do more and more development on it, the more I'm realizing I keep erring on the side of encouraging player creativity and open-ended mechanics, in a way that feels very Old-School to me. I may have used Pathfinder spells as bench-marks in the beginning, but more and more as I write and re-write the spheres and talents, I keep moving away from distinct packaged powers and more towards power-based guidelines.

Just yesterday, I sat down with the Warp sphere and realized that some of the talent divisions felt too spell-like to me; one talent (Call Object) for summoning an object to one's hand, but another (micro-portal) for using a readied action to grab a projectile out of the air. This division would make sense if I were writing spells, but logically speaking, if you can already call an object to your side, why couldn't you grab an arrow out of the air? I mulled it over; a clever player would use Call Object to grab a projectile and I'd certainly let him do it, but by having a talent dedicated to the maneuver, the Exclusion Principle ("if you need a feat to perform an action, you therefore can't perform that action without the feat") seemed to say it wasn't how the power was 'supposed' to be used. In the end, I cut the projectile-focused talent and added a mention to Call Object detailing how to use it on objects in the air.

The great, and also strange, thing about the F20 tradition (games involved in, or evolved from, D&D) is the subtle shift each mechanical variant brings to the game; there are a million versions of the same fantasy theme, and each one fits a little better, or a little worse, into each individual playstyle. As for the particular way the Spheres adjusts playstyle, only more development, playtests, and backer's surveys will determine how and how well this adjustment plays, but development always goes a little better when one has a philosophical goal to aim for and the New-Old School sounds like a good goal to me.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Caster Level vs Talent Sinks

In the basic Pathfinder magic system, there are two ways to guage the power of a spell; the spell's level, and the caster level of the spell-user. In Spheres of Power, we also have two ways of guaging power level; caster level, and the number of talents applied to the effect. Usually, there are only so many talents that can be applied to a single effect; with the Destruction sphere, after you've gained about 3 talents, taking more talents in that sphere increases versatility but not necessarily power. There are, however, two exceptions to this rule: conjuring and healing

In Pathfinder core, healing is a specialized job that requires serious investment. I've seen Alchemists and Bards who had the 'primary healing' job, and had to spend so much of their time healing they could use their spells for virtually nothing else. The Cleric of course has the most powerful healing abilities, but pays for that by having a much more limited capacity for blasting, controlling, and creating other effects. The wizard, as the great counter-example, has all sorts of potential spells and effects, but in exchange has virtually no healing powers. The balance concern is that if a single caster could both heal as well as a Cleric and do battle as well as a Wizard, they'd simply be too powerful of a caster and would lessen the chances his teammates have to shine. Since the Spheres of Power system currently has no restrictions on which class can take which sphere, the question becomes how to balance these sets of powers, and make sure the game doesn't become unhinged when any caster can become a healer if they should so choose.

Currently, our plan is to make healing a greater talent sink than the other spheres- while a higher caster level helps, the real way to increase the healing you can provide is by spending more talents on the sphere, gaining more or less an extra d8 of healing per talent spent. Thus, if a caster only wants to sink a couple talents into healing, his healing won't be nearly as effective, especially at higher levels. On the other hand, a mid or low caster willing to spend the talents can indeed become the party's main healer, doing things only the Cleric could do in the base system.

The other great talent sink system is conjuring. I've known a few GMs for whom conjuring was a bit of a sore spot; they'd had so many newer players grind the game to a halt as they looked up which monster to summon and figured out what they could do, and too many experienced players who'd used the spell-like abilities of summoned monsters to double their spell output and destroy all sense of game balance and team tactics.

Thus, we've also given conjuring a talent-sink system; full-casters will be able to summon more powerful creatures of course, but if a caster is only willing to spend a talent or two on the conjuration sphere, he'll have little more than a single weak ally, good for soaking up hits or setting up flanks, but little else. A dedicated summoner, however, can become a walking army, sinking their talents into summoning more creatures or giving a summoned ally even more power. It isn't inconceivable that a caster could sink each and every one of his talents into the conjuration sphere, but doing so will require that player to keep their bookkeeping under control and keep the game from stopping while rules are checked and stats are calculated.

By making these spheres talent-sinks, we've severely limited the amount of power a caster can wield by spending a few talents on the spheres. On the other hand, a player can still turn these spheres into the focuses of his build, he just has to be willing to spend the talents to become good at it. Is it the best way to handle these situations? I don't know; only playtesting and trying a few alternate methods can fully reveal that. But they're systems we're currently looking in to to see how they work alongside the other spheres. As always, feedback is appreciated as we see how these concepts work in action.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Those Twin Beasts: Balance and Versatility

There are two goals that every Pathfinder designer strives for when making new player content, particularly classes; balance and versatility. If you look closely, I bet almost all player complains (or at least most the ones I've read on the forums) come down to not being happy with the interplay of these two ideas.

Making a class balanced, and making a class versatile, sounds like a straight-forward concept, yet it can get bogged down pretty quickly when it comes to the specifics of individual playstyle. The fighter, for example, is supposed to represent the height of in-combat versatility, yet all it takes is a game more focused on dialogue and skill checks to make that player feel useless. Likewise the Rogue, considered by many to be the height of out-of-combat versatility, can find herself very un-versatile in practice, as many players feel the need to dedicate all those skill points to only traditional thieving pursuits (stealth, sleight of hand, disable device, etc.,) and in a combat-focused game the rogue often finds herself reduced to being a one-trick pony (flank enemy, sneak attack, rinse and repeat.)

So when you're throwing out something as big as the magic rules themselves and building them again from the ground up, balance and versatility become all-mportant, yet also very elusive beasts. How powerful is too powerful? How focused is too focused? And how will these ideas interact with a variety of playstyles, some of which you might not even have experienced yet?

We're almost at the point with the Spheres of Power classes where we can't improve on them anymore until they've been through a bit more focused and rigorous playtesting. And as I look down at our work, I find myself asking why we made the choices we did, especially as they relate to those classes that mechanically or thematically favor one sphere over another. Why is this class a mid-caster, while this other one is a high-caster? And how do we decide how many talents to give them?

In some cases, we give different classes different balancing systems not because they couldn't use the same mechanics, but so we can see each possible system in play together to compare and contrast the different options. So partially for my own benefit and partially for the benefit of anyone who wants to see inside a designer's head, I wanted to go over why we've made the choices we've made with some of our specialists, as we take these classes from the drawing board to the gaming table to see how they work.

The Elementalist: The elementalist is a combat specialist, pure and simple. With class features that improve the Destruction sphere, the elementalist is a blaster's dream. And so, as we set about balancing it, we decided to give it a low number of talents (only 10 by level 20) and a bonus combat feat every 4 levels. The Destruction sphere doesn't require many talents to be useful (it stops progressing in power after about 4, and after that simply makes the blaster more versatile,) so the class has everything it needs built in, covering the basic combat feats and destruction talents any good blaster needs to do his job.

The versatility, then, comes from the fact that despite its low number of talents, it is a High-Caster. With the basics covered by the class itself, players are freed to spend their feats however they want, using them for skill bonuses, defense, or new magic spheres which it can use with the same caster level as a dedicated Thaumaturge.

The Eliciter: The eliciter (formally the emophet of my previous post,) is just as dedicated as the elementalist, but to a different concept entirely; persuasion. She treats herself as a High-Caster for the Mind sphere and only the Mind sphere (being a mid-caster for all others,) and gains bonuses to the DCs of his Mind sphere abilities and class feature abilities, which include a choice of different emotions she can manipulate with a touch.

In the Eliciter's case, versatility comes from the fact that her class's focus is so strong, it actually doesn't need that much more work to hit what one might call 'top possible power-level.' Her class features and the Mind sphere do the same thing, so if the player decides to dedicate her talents to the Mind sphere, she can then dedicate her emotion abilities to those that provide benefits in combat (granting rage or better roles to allies.) Likewise, if the eliciter chooses emotions that relate to charm or fear, she can use her magic talents to branch out into other spheres, picking up destruction, illusion, healing, or whatever other Sphere abilities she chooses. Of course the eliciter could choose to dedicate both emotion and talents to mind-control, but she will quickly hit the point where such focus doesn't make her better at persuasion, just more focused.

The Symbiat: A psyonicist, the symbiat gains the mind and telekinesis spheres as bonus spheres at first level, and gains class features that at least thematically related to telepathy and telekinesis. However, I recently decided that rather than be a high-caster for the mind and telekinesis spheres and a mid-caster for all others, the symbiat should simply be a mid-caster for all spheres.

This is because, while the symbiat needs to possess the mind and telekinesis spheres for thematic purposes, mechanically he's not actually tied to either. A symbiat could choose to ignore those spheres entirely and focus on Destruction, Nature, or anything else he chooses. Thus, while a symbiat could easily be the party's dedicated telekinesis and mind expert, there was no reason to incentivise him to take that route (read: punish him for choosing any others) and doing anything else felt like we were actively trying to discourage creativity in player builds.

There is one more class we're working on; a shapeshifter (name pending) focused on the alteration sphere. I find myself reflecting on these other three classes, because the answer to how to do the shapeshifter is not quite as apparent as with the other three; shapeshifters can be so many things to so many people (front-line fighters, infiltrators, and if going for a Druid-esque focus, casters as well,) that finding out how exactly to grant that versatility can be daunting. Do we make him a high-caster and give him lots of magic talents so players can diversify that way? Do we give the class specific mechanics that allow it to accomplish all three ideas well, thus freeing players up to diversify with feats as we did with the elementalist? Or do we do something else entirely?

My hope is to have the classes all finished by the end of this week and release them for general playtesting on Monday. If all goes well, I'll be curious to see how players react to these different approaches to balance and versatility, and see if one stands out as a favorite, and if any of them need to go back to the drawing board.


Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The Spheres of Power Development Blog, and the Emophet

I recently re-read my "Doing Too Much" entry a few posts down, and almost laughed. In it, I talked about how I have a tendency to spread myself too thin by doing too many projects. Looking back, my focus on Spheres of Power has left me with the opposite problem; I keep finding myself neglecting everything else in my single-minded pursuit of this project. I've started fighting this tendency by making to-do lists for my day and week, scheduling time to read something for fun, exercise, and etc. Creative development is not helped by mental burn out, and I find I need to schedule these other activities into my day in order for the time I do dedicate to the project to be more productive. And one of those things I've scheduled for myself is to start a development blog.

And so I'm back, using this space to discuss those things that don't quite belong in a kickstarter update; thoughts on mechanics, discussion of design philosophy, and other general musings on my part.

And I think I'll start with the Emophet.


One of the fun things about doing Spheres of Power through Kickstarter is the ability for backers to make suggestions and take part in the development process, which is where the emophet comes from.

The emophet has been one of the most interesting design conundrums I've ever had. It's the result of a Theurge-level backer (who gets us to make a class for him) requesting something akin to the Confessor from the Sword of Truth series.

For those who don't know, a Confessor is a person with the power to permanently strip the will from those she touches, making them do her bidding. It's a concept ripe with story-ideas, but as an SoP class it faces 2 problems: 1, a one-trick class isn't that fun to play, and 2, we'd already decided that Dominate Person was a game changer; one of a set of spells and abilities (long-range teleportation, communing with gods, etc.) that can drastically changed the way the game is played and the way the world works. These abilities would be removed from the core system and included as optional Advanced Talents, so GMs could choose to include them if he wanted them, rather than forcing him to edit them out if he didn't.

This also tied in strangely well with the super-enchanter I mentioned in my Story vs Mechanic-based play post. The more I thought of that super-enchanter, the more I wasn't happy with the idea of making him a Pathfinder sorcerer; I kept finding myself imagining him fighting with daggers, making assassination strikes, and possessing lots of skill points, and the less I saw him relying on anything other than enchanting and illusions. But of course, if I made him a straight sorcerer I couldn't really use daggers, and if I made him an arcane trickster I wouldn't gain access to the highest-level enchantment spells. Then answer, of course, was to make him an emophet, and change the question to 'How could the emophet help me make a character that isn't possible with Pathfinder Core?"

The answer, as we're currently working on it, is to give the emophet a caster level equal to her level for the mind sphere only, as well as a small scaling bonus to the DCs associated with it (similar to the Fey or Arcane sorcerer bloodlines getting their free DC bonuses.) For all other purposes, however, she's a mid-BAB, mid-Caster Level jack of all trades, similar to a bard. If a GM decides to open the way for the long-term domination Advanced Talent, the confessor is born, but if not, their power is not completely stunted, as the rest of the emophet's abilities come from a related, but mechanically different, source: emotions.

In the Sword of Truth series, a confessor's power comes from love (their magic works by making the touched person love them so much they lose all will, which interestingly means it doesn't work on those who already deeply love the confessor) and confessors had been known to manifest Blood-Rage powers if one they personally love is threatened. The emophet takes this idea and expands it, allowing players to pick powers based not only on love (domination,) but rage (combat bonuses), joy (healing), apathy (stopping actions), and despair (fear and debuffs.) Thus, even without the advanced talents, an emophet can become a powerful enchanter (love), but can just as equally dip its way into other party roles and character concepts, all as the player sees fit.

It's not finished (I still need to finish writing everything up and send it to the backer to review,) but so far the Emophet is taking its place next to the Armorist (which also comes from a Theurge backer suggestion) as my favorite new class of the book.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Spheres of Power Kickstarter is live!

A while ago, my friend Thomas approached me with an idea: a few spellcasting classes he wanted to make that used talents instead of magic. Then I though, why stop at a few classes, when it sounds like the beginnings of an entire system?

Spheres of Power is a completely new magic system for Pathfinder, based on magic talents. The kickstarter can be found here.

I'm building a huge breakdown of Spheres of Power for those who want to know more about what it entails and I'll put it up here. Sorry there's not more information right now, but I've got kids to put to bed.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Story vs Mechanic-based play

No, this is not a roll-play vs roleplay post, but that might be a good place to lead into it:

In my head, I have a Pathfinder character rolling around that I've been dying to use. He's got a well thought-out backstory, a nice collection of personality strengths and flaws, and he seems like he'd be really fun to play. There's just one problem:

He is RIDICULOUSLY overpowered.

If you'e a Pathfinder person, you can probably get the picture: crossblooded Fey/Arcane sorcerer, Spell Focus (Enchantment), Greater Spell Focus (Enchantment), with the rest of his build being illusions, stealth, and Silent Spell. At level 1, enemies would have to overcome a DC of 20 to resist his mind control. At higher levels, he'd be walking around invisible, silently compelling anything he finds to do his bidding. By the time he has the Dominate Person spell, he'd be walking around with his own personal army of mind-thralls.

Playing this guy sounds like all sorts of fun to me: the implications of unbeatable mind-control, the ethical battles about who should or should not be manipulated, the battle of wits between him and the great villain (who obviously will be immune to mind control) as each tries to out-think each other while moving their minions around like chess pieces; in my head it sounds like a blast. But what if the GM gets mad at me for breaking the Challenge Rating suggested rules? What if he feels I've broken the game, and decides to fix it by sending nothing but mindless beasts at us? What if he, as I've heard other GMs do when faced with a successful Charm spell, throws the module down and exclaims I broke the adventure?

In essence, what if he refuses to give me story-based play?

Pathfinder, like all D&D variants, sits at the uneasy marriage between story-based play and mechanic-based play. On one hand, they have rules to drive wagons, buy boats, copy spells from another wizard's spellbook,  develop nations and armies, bring siege weapons to a battle, and use the leadership feat to gain cohorts and followers. On the other hand, it also has suggested wealth-by-level rules, a complicated system of Challenge Ratings used to determine what encounters are 'correct' for the players (4 in a day before you start even risking death,) and a combat system that so strongly assumes you will only be a small group of adventurers taking on small groups of monsters that an attempt to do anything else just gets ridiculously complicated.

I know this battle has existed since D&D's first days, but in recent years, what with the 4th-ed/OSR gaming division, it has really moved to the foreground, as people battle over how the game 'should' be played.

Mechanic-based play is best represented by computer RPGs. There are a set number of things you can do, a linear story (or close enough to it,) a series of tactical combats governed by rules to create a sufficient amount of tension, and since the only thing worth buying is a better sword or shield, actual coin-based wealth means little. Mechanic-focused players are most likely to utter things like: "I hate the leadership feat, it's so broken," or "What's the point of taking profession skills?" or "Animate dead really isn't meant for players to use, it's just too overpowered.". If you suggest to a mechanics-based GM that your character, being a cleric, should be able to walk into that big temple to his god and ask for help, he will quickly think of some reason why, even with the world resting in the balance, no help will be available.

On the other end of the spectrum, in the story-driven section, we have the Prose Descriptive Qualities system (PDQ,) or Burning Wheel. The idea is to tell a story, and the ability to push and pull the story in different ways is much more important than calculating the power level of a character. In these systems, you could start the game rich, royal, or insanely powerful, because the focus of the game isn't killing the monsters, it's telling the story or solving the problem, and wealth, diplomacy, combat, or cunning are all equally-valid routes to that end.

The thing is, I like big combats and pitting my build against enemies and seeing if I can survive an epic battle (which, incidentally, is another reason I hate the lethal-less CR, 4-encounters-a-day rules,) but I also really, really love my story. If my backstory includes a father who's the captain of the city guard, and you let us enter that city, you'd better believe I'll be asking my father for help with whatever's happening, because doing anything else when such a resource is available would just be stupid. But when a GM has a video game styled adventure in mind with calculated, constant fights designed on a 4-a-day model, nothing can be as unwelcome.

I've seen GMs give players telepathic access to 20th-level casters to serve as their quest patrons, only to sputter when the players asked why that patron couldn't just teleport in and help them, since it was completely within his power. I've seen GMs go white when players, rather than spending ludicrous amounts of money on a better sword, instead chose to invest it in hiring mercenaries, buying land, or starting a business. I've seen GM's dumbfounded when a player used his background or profession skills to demonstrate that he didn't, in fact, need to charge blindly and alone into the GM's pre-written encounter. Heck, one time I had a GM introduced our party to a city of wizards who knew our epic quest and wanted to help, only to have that GM go slightly speechless when my wizards asked if he could copy some spells from their ludicrously giant library, which had already been established to contained unsightly amounts of arcane knowledge. To these people, there is a way the game was supposed to be played, one that involved combats and very carefully-controlled combat-related resources, and any sort of deviation from that wasn't just unexpected, it was unwelcome.

But isn't that the glory of our hobby? The ability to play any way you want? It's impossible to truly 'break' the game after all, as the difficulty can always be scaled up, or the nature of the game changed. Introducing followers, fortresses, and actually asking NPCs from your backstory for help doesn't destroy the game, it just changes it from the exploits of sellswords to the exploits of generals and kings; a different style of game, sure, but not a bad one.

One of my favorite shows when I was younger was Gundam Wing, back when it was on Toonami. Unlike most soldier shows where there are good guys, bad guys, and the conflict is "will they survive to kill the bad guys?", this show bluntly acknowledged the overpowered nature of the main characters: they were perfect soldiers, they piloted unbeatable giant robots; the fear of death was never really part of the show. So, instead of being about whether or not they would succeed, the show as about what they would choose to fight for. Political alliances kept switching, public opinion kept swaying; the characters wanted to do good and had the power to do virtually whatever they wanted, and so the conflict came from figuring out how they should use their power, rather than figuring out if they had enough of it.

One day I would love to break out my overpowered enchanter to see how he plays, but I don't feel like I can until I have a GM ready for a Gundam Wing style of game. One who's willing to ignore how the game is 'supposed' to be played, and instead find new and exciting ways it could be played.

Finger's crossed.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

To Be a Man

I discovered an interesting show recently. “James May’s Man Lab,” a British show starring Top Gear’s James May, where he builds manly things, gives manly advice, and resurrects various old manly pursuits such as how to serenade a woman, how to polish boots, and how to solve conflicts by dueling. He makes the argument that men have gone from capable beings making progress in science and art to incapable idiots who lack the discipline to solve their own problems. In many ways, it reminds me of my time in Scouting- I was taught how to shoot, handle, and be safe around firearms, how to build a shelter out of sticks, and how to recognize edible plants not because any one of those activities would make or break my life, but because the culmination of that education would grant a level of self-discipline, self-reliance, and a proactive attitude that simply made better men.

And so May is setting out likewise to teach skills and help men to be men again, but what I love is that his definition of manhood is just so... British. According to May, men should be able to play a musical instrument, invent and build whatever he is in need of, be versed in history and etiquette; heck, he even has a butler that blows a horn to start challenges. To him, manhood means intellectuality, self-reliance, and innovation.

Compare this definition of masculinity to the one usually found on internet man-rule lists or celebrated in American ‘Man show’ shows, (yes these are made for humor, but unfortunately humor is normally based on truth:)

*When out with the guys, never accept a call from your girlfriend—unless she's dying or trapped under a burning fuel truck, and if that's the case, make it quick.

*It is permissible to drink a fruity alcohol drink only when you're sunning on a tropical beach... and it's delivered by a topless model and only when it's free.

*We've all heard about people having guts or balls. But do you really know the difference between them? In an effort to keep you informed, the definition of each is listed below:
"GUTS" is arriving home late after a night out with the guys, being assaulted by your wife with a broom, and having the guts to say, "are you still cleaning or are you flying somewhere?"
"BALLS" is coming home late after a night out with the guys smelling of perfume and beer, lipstick on your collar, slapping your wife on the ass and having the balls to say, "You're next!"

A call to ignore your girlfriend, a description of ‘girly’ things to avoid at all costs, and permission to be a jerk. Not the most rousing call to arms.

As a father of 2 boys I think about masculinity a lot, and how to many masculinity isn’t much about what one does, but rather what one doesn’t do, and when people think of what men are actually supposed to do, it usually revolves around food, sports, booze and sex. Kenneth Maton, who did a survey of psychological studies of masculinity over the past 30 years, concluded that men are confined by traditional stereotypes that they should reject  “anything stereotypically feminine, to be tough and aggressive, suppress emotions (other than anger), distance themselves emotionally and physically from other men, and strive toward competition, success and power”

In some ways, this is simply the natural result of feminism. Masculinity used to infer a take-charge attitude, leadership, problem-solving, but these were the very qualities that feminism attacked as leading to patriarchy and the belittling of femininity, and thus along with all the good feminism has done for the world, it also had the unfortunate side-effect of tearing down masculinity in its efforts to build up femininity. As Elwood Watson states in his book Pimps, Wimps, Studs, Thugs and Gentlemen: Essays on Media Images of Masculinity, in the face of feminism and the changing role of women, and the converse effect these things have on men, many men find themselves “frustrated, disenfranchised, and confused... fewer men are attending college, and increasing numbers are dropping out of society altogether.”

Now I’m sure any and every feminist you ask will say it isn’t the goal of feminism to destroy manhood, and any marriage-seeking woman will tell you the attractiveness of those proactive masculine qualities, but also that it’s getting harder and harder to find men who possess them. In essence, it’s not that feminism destroyed masculinity, but rather that after the redefining of masculinity that feminism necessarily brought to the table, no one stepped in to fill the masculine gap with something new and better. If the plight of women is there are too many messages in society about what a woman should be like, the plight of men is they’re not getting enough of them.

Personally, I think this is the reason why comic books, high fantasy, science fiction, video games, and tabletop roleplaying exploded so much among men when they were invented. It’s not that sports were the only acceptable pastime for a man, but that most everything else carried a stigma of femininity and emasculation. As soon as someone invented a new activity that didn’t have that stigma, men flocked to it like desert travelers to an oasis.

However, there is hope. There are those who are questioning the definition of masculinity we currently teach and are looking to improve it. My wife, Rachel, is currently working on a paper to hopefully publish about the Brony movement: the 20-something, straight, college-educated, male fans of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. These men are attacked on news programs and comedy shows as being nothing short of a group of gay-pediphile-losers, but the Brony Study has recently concluded that all evidence shows Bronies have no higher levels of feminine behavior, homosexuality, unemployment, mental illness, or any other ‘answer’ people like to give for the movement’s existence. Bronies are completely normal for their age and demographic. So after months of research, she found 2 factors that most directly account for the existence of Bronies:

1. My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic is simply a very, very well-made show.


2. When men realize fact #1 after watching a few episodes, they also realize that their initial aversion to the show was simply based on the fact that it’s feminine. But why? Why should they be afraid of something just because it’s feminine? They don’t fear femininity, they don’t hate women, so why stop watching one of the best written shows on the air just because the show was initially targeting girls?

Many Bronies even take this a step further, turning the show into something akin to a lifestyle. When faced with a well-written show that sets about teaching good life-lessons, they started taking those messages to heart, using them in their personal lives, artistic endeavors, and interactions with others. These men aren’t embracing femininity, but rather are using a show that celebrates femininity to find the aspects that also apply to them (the best personality traits, after all, are usually gender neutral.) These Bronies are redefining, strengthening, and celebrating masculinity through their love of the show, and as such find uniquely masculine ways to incorporate the show into their lives, from Dusty the “Manliest Brony in the World,” to Living Tombstone the celebrated Brony electronic music artist.

Here's one of my favorite examples linked below, just because it's the internet and I can.

Just in case you didn't get it the first time around, Discord is the name of a villain from My Little Pony season 2.

I know there are people who heckle any time someone brings up the plights of men or white people or any other so-called ‘dominant group,’ but as a father of two small boys I’ve done quite a bit of thinking on the subject, and I honestly believe that it’s time we started worrying about men and masculinity as much as we do other things. Whenever I hear sociologists talk about gang and crime problems or feminists talk about the continued troubles women face, all I can think is “if we just fixed the messages we send boys about what a man should be, we’d fix just about every one of those problems in a generation.”

What follows are simply musings of my own about what I believe this new definition of manhood should entail. Some could point out that this isn’t a set of guidelines but rather personality traits, and traits that are bent toward the straight, probably white and middle class man, but these aren’t supposed to be a set of guidelines. Much of our understanding of gender comes from the influence of icons on our lives, and this is simply my take on what the most relatable iconic man of the 21st Century would probably be like, if he were to appear in life, film, or literature.

The Iconic Man
  • The Iconic Man is physically fit, and has at least a basic competency with boxing, martial arts, and firearms. He knows how to handle himself in a fight, and he makes others feel safer just by being around.
  • The Iconic Man doesn’t fear ‘womanly things’. He can enjoy Broadway musicals, ballet, My Little Pony, and well-written chick flicks because he knows his manhood isn’t so flimsy that a breath of femininity would blow it away; he knows that masculinity and femininity aren’t in competition with each other, and should never be treated as if they were.
  • The Iconic Man knows how to take care of himself. He knows how to cook, clean, and do laundry. He isn’t a baby who needs a mommy to cook his meals and clean up after him.
  • The Iconic Man is caring, compassionate, and sensitive to other’s feelings. He knows these attributes are the basis of personal strength.
  • The Iconic Man is a good father. He can play with kids, take care of their needs, and teach them things without feeling overwhelmed.
  • The Iconic Man is disciplined. He can follow directions, hold his baser human impulses in check, and be a self-motivated individual.
  • The Iconic Man is brave. If someone’s in danger or something must be done quickly, he keeps his cool and does what he can to help. He is not, however, reckless, and doesn’t put himself or others in danger in search of some cheap thrill.
  • The Iconic Man is a leader. He can take charge of a situation and make sure things get done. He can delegate and council well with others.
  • The Iconic Man is a follower. He knows when another is more qualified than he and how to support them in their work. He is a good team player.
  • The Iconic Man is responsible. He takes responsibility for his actions and mistakes, he follows through with assignments, and he can be depended on.
  • The Iconic Man is artistic. He has at least a basic competency in either singing, playing an instrument, artistry, or some other creative endeavor, and he can understand and appreciate art and beauty for its own sake.
  • The Iconic Man is articulate. He does not need to speak often, but when he does he knows how to speak well and clearly. He can express himself in person, prose, or poetry with at least a basic competency.
  • The Iconic Man is respectful of others. He does not enjoy angering others, and even in debate over charged topics, he does his best to be understanding of his opponent. He does not physically or emotionally abuse or manipulate.
  • The Iconic Man is morally strong. Even when being considerate, he does not back down from his beliefs, does not balk principle, and while he doesn’t enjoy angering others, he refuses to be wishy-washy.
  • The Iconic Man does not need to be in the military, but he has the mental, physical, and emotional fortitude that he could do it if it were required of him.
  • The Iconic Man is humble. He knows he does not know everything, and he acknowledges the points of his opponents in a debate, even when discussing politics or religion. After all, he is still learning himself, and he knows only a fool thinks he has nothing to learn from another’s views.
  • The Iconic Man is romantic. He knows how to please a woman and make her feel special, not as part of some ‘pick-up technique’, but because he genuinely wants her to feel that way.
  • The Iconic Man is responsible with sex. He is not a slave to impulses, and he is too responsible to risk a pregnancy outside of the time and place of his choosing, with a woman he wants to start a family with. He would never, ever, ever touch a woman in a way that was unwelcome. He treats both sex and the person he is having it with with the utmost respect.
  • The Iconic Man is intelligent. He doesn’t need to be college educated, but he does regularly read and know how to use a computer. He enjoys good discourse, and never stops learning new things.
  • The Iconic Man is an authority figure in his own home. His children love him and know he loves them, but they also respect him and know he cannot be manipulated or intimidated, and that his word is law. He not only makes them feel loved, but also makes them feel safe.
  • The Iconic Man treats his wife well. He knows that while he may be an authority figure to his children, he is a partner to his wife, and gives her respect and support, just as he expects to receive it from her.
  • The Iconic Man knows how to dance. He need not be excellent, but he knows how to move well and how to lead a woman through a waltz without embarrassing himself.
  • The Iconic Man is helpful. When disaster strikes another, he doesn’t say ‘that sucks,’ he says ‘what can I do to help?’
  • The Iconic Man is attractive. He knows how to dress well, how to care for his clothes, and how to clean himself up. He owns a suit and feels comfortable wearing it.
  • The Iconic Man is honest. He doesn’t break his promises, and as such doesn’t make a promise lightly. He’d rather be honest, even when it reflects badly upon himself, than lie to get ahead.
  • The Iconic Man is good with his hands. He’s physically strong, and he can change a tire, work with basic tools, put furniture together, etc. He can at least make an attempt at a repair job before calling in the professionals.
  • The Iconic Man is adventurous. He loves excitement and cultivating new experiences.
  • The Iconic Man is friendly. He has many close friends and is welcoming toward others. He isn’t afraid to be emotionally close to other people, be they spouse or friend.
  • The Iconic Man knows history, both the world’s and that of his own family. He respects his parents and his ancestors, and seeks to build upon the good things they have already done.
  • The Iconic Man is good with money. He need not have a lot of it, but he can stay out of debt and take care of himself.
  • The Iconic Man is patient, and has perspective. He knows how to wait, he knows when to let go of unimportant things, and he never lets things get him down for long.
  • The Iconic Man doesn’t put inappropriate value on material things. Stuff is stuff, nothing more.
  • The Iconic Man is proactive. He doesn’t whine. He doesn’t let his mistakes get him down, but instead learns from them and keeps on going.
  • The Iconic Man doesn’t let those who depend on him down, and cares about their happiness.

Does it sound to you like I’ve distilled every good virtue in the world into one list? Like I’m asking men to strive for some sort of personal perfection in an unending battle to become better people?


That’s Manhood.